COVID-19: effective policymaking depends on trust in experts, politicians, and the public

Image of a crowd of people wearing masks
  • Published Date: 13 July 2021

In a crisis, choices about who to trust or distrust could make a difference between life and death. Trust is necessary for cooperation, coordination, social order and to reduce the need for coercive state imposition.

During a pandemic, people need to trust:

  • experts to help them understand and respond to the problem
  • governments to coordinate policy instruments and make choices about levels of coercion
  • citizens as they cooperate to minimise infection.

An article in Policy Design and Practice discusses the dynamics of trust in the context of COVID-19 and policymaking.

What is trust?

Trust describes a belief in the reliability of other people, organisations or processes. It is necessary for cooperation which helps people coordinate action without the need for imposition. It helps reduce uncertainty in a complex world. It facilitates social order and cohesiveness. It has a strong impact on policy design, ownership and policy outcomes.

Trust in relation to policy and policymaking

One dimension of trust is reliability which relates to the perceived qualities of an actor, such as:

  • integrity - if someone says they will do something, I believe they are being honest
  • credibility - I believe they are making feasible claims in relation to their ability
  • competence - I believe they have the ability to do something.

This perception facilitates behaviour essential to policymaking. Actors rely on others to address:

  • uncertainty - by seeking credible information about a problem or the feasibility of a solution
  • ambiguity - by seeking an authoritative account of how to understand a problem or how best to solve it.

Developing trust

Trust development can occur at three levels:

1. Individual

People rely on cognitive biases to make choices. In a process of mutual trust development, actors draw on their own:

  • cognition: to calculate the risk of action
  • emotion: to inform hope in others and produce a disposition to trust.

They also demonstrate trustworthiness by developing a reputation for integrity, credibility and/or competence.

Key factors for mutual trust development include: 

  • shared characteristics such as beliefs, norms, or expectations
  • reputations for being reliable, predictable, honest
  • behaviour: repeated interaction, face to face contact
  • authority such as the power to achieve a stated outcome

2. Social and political rules

Repeated exchange is often key to developing trust based on a perception of competence and reliability. However, people also have to trust people they do not know which may prompt them to rely on shared expectations, interests, values or beliefs.

In either case, formal and well-understood rules help produce predictable behaviour. Informal rules and norms can also reflect the ways in which people signal to each other their credibility and reliability during repeated interactions.

3. Social relations

People recognise their interdependence and their need to cooperate without knowing what will happen. A focus on societal interdependence resembles the study of complex systems which cannot be simply reduced into individual action. As a collective attribute, trust is applicable to the relations among people.

The role of trust in COVID-19 policy

The article discusses three aspects of COVID-19 policy that highlight the potential gulf between trust as a requirement of political systems and distrust as an obstacle to political action.

To what extent do:

  1. Policymakers trust scientific evidence and expert advice?
  2. Policymakers trust citizens to change their own behaviour for the public good?
  3. Citizens trust their governments to address COVID-19 competently?

In each case, trust development processes can enable evidence-informed policy design and compliance with government policy. Alternatively distrust can prompt some policymakers or citizens to ignore expert advice and government guidance.

The table below outlines the dynamics of trust as applied to evidence and experts, citizens, and governments.

RB33 Table

What happened in the US and UK

The article examines the role of trust in how the US and the UK tackled COVID-19. It found:

  • policymaker trust in science advice was high in the UK but mixed in the US
  • policymaker trust in citizens was initially high in the UK but mixed in the US
  • citizen trust in government was initially high in the UK versus a legacy of distrust in the US

The importance of trust and distrust is universal and an essential part of any story of COVID-19 policy design and outcomes. Trust in government leaders is necessary for well-supported action. This fostered by:

  • citizens’ trust in policymakers based on their beliefs
  • the track records of policymakers
  • rules to deter breaches of trust.

Want to read more?

COVID-19: effective policymaking depends on trust in experts, politicians, and the public - Paul Cairney & Adam Wellstead, Policy Design and Practice, Volume 4, 2021

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